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Emerging Voices: Lisa Martilotta on Women’s Employment in Rwanda

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
January 15, 2013

A Rwandan woman carries an umbrella for shade at Mulindi, about 60 km (40 miles) north of the capital Kigali on August 5, 2010 (Finbarr O'Reilly/Courtesy Reuters). A Rwandan woman carries an umbrella for shade at Mulindi, about 60 km (40 miles) north of the capital Kigali on August 5, 2010 (Finbarr O'Reilly/Courtesy Reuters).


Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Lisa Martilotta, a principle in Akilah Institute for Women, Rwanda’s first women’s college. She describes her organization’s efforts to link college education to employment opportunities for young women in Rwanda.

The only investment with the possibility of infinite returns is the investment in youth, and more particularly, young women. Nobel laureates, political leaders, and celebrity NGO founders all agree on this, but as Isobel Coleman wrote on her blog in December, the challenge remains: how can we bridge the ever-increasing gap between youth development and the demanding market?

We launched the Akilah Institute for Women (Akilah) in 2010 in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, to meet the needs of both marginalized rural women and the booming private sector. Akilah is a college for young women offering three-year diploma programs in market-relevant fields. If you’re an East African woman, odds are that you will be married and pregnant before twenty rather than attending classes, since school is an investment that many families reserve for their boys.

Meanwhile, Rwanda’s private sector logs regular complaints of a poorly trained workforce that cannot meet the need for skilled professionals. Taking these phenomena into account, Akilah set out to build a bridge connecting young women to the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. We quickly realized that in East Africa, education and training institutes don’t typically collaborate with the private sector—and vice versa. They are also rarely affordable to the overwhelming majority of women. Our solution was to offer fairly priced higher education that incorporates two crucial elements: market-relevant curricula and professional development programs that connect graduates directly to the workforce.

One of our alumnae, Francine, lost her parents, and all but one of her siblings, in the 1994 genocide, leaving her as a toddler in her adolescent sister’s care. She had no money to pay for tuition for the national university and was blocked from developing a career. In East Africa, women represent 53 percent of the population, but for cultural and historical reasons they are at a serious disadvantage in both school and jobs. It is estimated that a mere 1 percent of the Rwandan population has access to higher education, and a shockingly low one-third of that group is female.

But at Akilah, Francine entered a novel program that focuses on the hard and soft skills necessary to work in an environment of scarce employment: not just how to wait tables or clean a room, but the concrete development of English language, leadership, ethics, teamwork, public speaking, and entrepreneurial skills. Our approach centers on a team-based learning method that mirrors the job site and teaches essential professional and leadership capacities, such as effective communication, problem solving, and critical analysis.

This program was designed by listening to and incorporating the needs of growing East African markets. For our students, like Francine, who struggle to afford even their tiny fraction of the tuition fees—a personal investment that builds each student’s sense of ownership in her future—we built a student loan program in collaboration with Vittana.

Today, Francine is earning a monthly salary that is ten times her previous earning potential, as surveyed upon admission. She and each of her classmates had a job offer before they graduated and seventeen are now training with Marriott in the Middle East, preparing to return home to assume positions of responsibility in Sub-Saharan Africa’s very first Marriott hotel. This illustrates Akilah’s successful efforts to forge internship and employment partnerships with the business community. But even after graduates enter the workforce, this “turning education into employment” model means that the institution shares responsibility with its alumnae for offering services to ensure career paths stay wide, long, and well lit.

Our vision is to expand into a network of campuses for women across East Africa. The demand definitely exists: the constant flow of new applicants, as well as requests by other local and national authorities for a campus in their jurisdiction, illustrates the dire need for such scalable institutions that invest in youth, women, and the workforce.  And the model is scalable for two main reasons: first, we have created a scalable package of specially tailored curricula and related academic programs for East African women to ensure ease of implementation at each new campus; and second, we have strong support from like-minded global investors. Our second campus is currently under construction in Bugesera, Rwanda, and plans for the third in Burundi are well underway with the Burundian government and private sector.

Youth, workforce, and market development has consequences for all nations, especially low-income ones. The World Bank and others have argued that insufficient job opportunities correlate with intolerance, low civic engagement, and low levels of optimism about the future. This creates the conditions for social strife everywhere, and may have been among the precursors for the genocide that cost the lives of almost a million people in Rwanda in 1994. So why aren’t more like-minded institutions popping up in areas where youth are unemployed?  We see three reasons:

  1. Too many academic institutions do not firmly grasp the intimate connection between their mission and the growth of a nation.
  2. It costs institutional time, energy, and resources to engage in deep and meaningful collaboration with private-sector partners. Academic institutions often prioritize other things that lead to donor dollars or income.
  3. The private and public sectors too often fail to play a tangible role (most importantly, with funding) in the development of academic institutions. They either do not see their connection with national development or deem the investment too costly and instead adopt short-term approaches to profit.

But for those educational institutions that embrace the maxim that the only investment with infinite returns is in connecting young people like Francine to growing organizations and markets, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Julian

    Thank you for making this effort to give voice to the academic needs of the Rwandan women. As one of the older generation of “East African Women” that indeed studied against female limitations of the times, I believe female empowerment is the way to go, African or otherwise for we are the primary source of learning for all as Mothers. Educate a woman, and you will have educated a nation, for she will use her learning to ensure the trickledown effect of this education is evident within her own children, I should know, I am a mother! I can therefore say that indeed it is a worthy effort that Akilah focuses on the Female empowerment as a means towards encouraging more young female Leaders, Entrepreneurs, Policy makers and Trend setters within the country.

    For the Institutes and Universities within East and Central Africa that are bridging the gap between Education and Private sector some of the strongest tools applied through which I too had to rigorously and mercilessly go through are:
    • Career Counseling
    • Internships
    • Mentoring
    • Practical Courses and Mock case scenario Training
    • Attachments in Course to Career Related Institutions
    It is indeed and added advantage that at Akilah these similar trainings exist and are given extra attention. they are definite non pedagogical tools of education that give the Akilah ladies more to boost their Labor Market readiness.

    Let us hope the Akilah efforts to effect change, will be heard, read, and seen by others and inspire them to help support the AKILAH’S MISSION to…… “Empower young women in East Africa, to transform their lives by equipping them with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to find meaningful employment and launch ventures in the fastest growing sectors of the economy.”

  • Posted by Henry. Rwamugema

    Type your comment in here…Bravo Akilah for incubating the state of the art workforce for Rwanda demanding market. You are really Doing the Right Thing !
    Creating bunch of higher learning institutions in Rwanda without fulfilling the quality of education and exit workforce cannot solve Rwanda”s short and long term human capital.
    Akilah is doing the right model for Rwanda that other institutions need to tap
    Personally I admire your educations/professional model and please keep it up!
    Henry Rwamugema

  • Posted by Abela A

    Type your comment in here…Dear Lisa, I enjoyed reading your article and I wish other settings, even Europe could adapt your model. Lets talk!

  • Posted by Beth Souther

    Reading this piece brings tears, yet tremendous hope, about the East African part of the world. The fact that these graduates get good jobs after they complete their studies, should be a model for the globe. I just learned that two Akilah graduates will be coming to the US to raise awareness during Fall, 2013. I will try to make it to Boston, October 10; New York, October 17; Philadelphia, October 24; D.C., October 30 or Tampa, November 8. I want to be a part of this global solution.

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